For the third time in as many years Manchester United’s pre-season campaign has carried with it a renewed sense of optimism. In summer 2014, United sacked Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, and replaced him with Dutch veteran Louis Van Gaal. Throughout that summer supporters were treated to some outstanding performances by Van Gaal’s Netherlands squad at the World Cup. It built hope for what was not to come.
In years gone by the build up to the FA Cup final would centre on the teams involved. The occasion and the prize on offer mean far more than the future of any manager. But, then, this hasn’t been any old season. Manchester United heads into the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace looking for the club’s first piece of major silverware since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Three long years. While reaching the cup final is to be celebrated, there will be relief painted across United supporters’ faces come full-time on Saturday. The curtain will surely come down on Louis van Gaal’s era at Old Trafford.
As the old saying goes, it’s not despair, but the hope that kills you. On Tuesday night, Manchester United travelled to East London to face West Ham United with Champions League qualification on the line. The Reds needed a win to leap-frog Manchester City into fourth place with one game remaining after the Blues had come unstuck at home to Arsenal. Yet, as has so often been the case during Louis Van Gaal’s disastrous reign as United manager, his team fell apart on the big occasion. On an emotional night in East London the Hammers out-played and out-fought United in every department. It was West Ham’s last appearance at the Boleyn Ground, but in truth the home side did little more than expose United for the poorly managed, disorganised mess that the side now is.
In a season of unpredictability, perhaps this could have been foreseen, however unlikely. Unbelievably, Manchester United now has Champions League qualification firmly in control, despite the team’s best efforts for much of the season to the contrary. Louis van Gaal’s side, so often criticised for stagnant football and poor performances, is just two wins away from a seat at Europe’s top table after Manchester City’s draw against Arsenal last Sunday. Pep Guardiola may arrive at City without Champions League football, and United may allow manager Van Gaal to lead the side for one more year.
Ahead of Leicester City’s visit to Old Trafford on Sunday parallels are unintentionally drawn between the clubs’ respective managers. Claudio Ranieri, the once famed ‘tinkerman’, was viewed by many pundits as a good coach, but perhaps not good enough to lead the very best. And yet, Ranieri is on the verge of winning his first ever top flight title. Ranieri’s charm, charisma and honesty has won over fans and pundits, with a commitment to team chemistry and a promise of creative freedom key factors in Leicester’s unlikely title charge.
Over the years Manchester United has entered spring chasing a league title, a domestic cup or European glory. Days out to Wembley were common, as was the tension as the Reds sought to tie up yet another title. Spring has not been so kind in recent years, though, with United having little to shout about since the spring of 2013 when the Reds wrapped up a record-breaking 20th league title on a late April night. Yet, on Saturday, United’s supporters will find themselves walking down Wembley Way once again, with the hope of FA Cup glory firmly on the mind.
Seldom has a Manchester United victory left supporters as dismayed than they are now. United’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa was another low in Louis van Gaal’s managerial reign, despite the three points keeping the Reds’ top four hopes alive. United lumbered to an unconvincing victory against one of the worst sides the Premier League has ever seen. The crowd at Old Trafford was as flat as the style of play, with fans increasingly frustrated with Van Gaal’s philosophy. Football is a game of entertainment, and the Premier League is the home of end-to-end attacking football. In truth, United’s fans are simply bored.
Once upon a time Manchester United’s fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur were settled before a ball was kicked. United’s record at White Hart Lane is excellent – and the side has not lost there since 2001. However, long gone are the days when Sir Alex Ferguson could construct Tottenham’s downfall with three simple words: “Lads… It’s Tottenham.” It doesn’t do the North London side justice; the balance of power is shifting in the Premier League.
For once, the international break was a welcome distraction, and not just an unnecessary fixture in the calendar. Manchester United supporters enjoyed work, head held high, knowing the team couldn’t let them down – and with a glow of recent victory over Manchester City still fresh. All good things must come to an end though and the Premier League returns with United welcoming Everton to Old Trafford, chasing fourth, and with it a Champions League spot.
It wasn’t so long ago that English football was in awe of Manchester’s clubs. For a time the city had legitimate claim to being the world’s capital of football, with two powerhouse clubs trading titles for four years. The United-City rivalry has been at the centre of some of the best conclusions to a Premier League season in recent years, yet, as Manchester United prepares to travel across town to face neighbours City on Sunday, the fixture is hardly talk of the town, let alone the nation.